Every year we try to take a week or so off from work in the autumn and head to a sunny place so that we could charge our batteries with sunlight and vitamin D before the cold, grey, rainy Brussels winter hits. Recently, the Canary Islands have been our favourite destination because the flights are frequent and not too long, they are Spanish territory and part of the EU, and they offer plenty of options for accommodations and fun. This November, however, we did an atypical thing – we decided to drive to the UK and spend a week in Oxford! There were a few raised eyebrows from friends and colleagues when we told them what we had decided – you know, it’s cold, rainy, not particularly exotic, etc – but we stuck to our guns!
I am not an obsessively organised traveller. I hardly ever research a place before I go. I usually always know something about the place which interests me (which explains why I choose to go there at first place) and this is enough to kindle my inspiration. I like to go to new places in order to dip myself into a new environment and see how life goes around there more than I like to run around checking off every sight in the guidebook. What I look for in a trip is some rest, some time off from the everyday grind at home and a chance to soak in another way of life and another scenery.
So, we set off for Oxford with this mindset and by car. The “by car” bit was quite an adventure bearing in mind that my husband is not used to driving on the left side of the road. And I can assure you it was challenging most of the time and downright scary at a few occasions but it was all part of the thrill.
We had decided that we would go with the ferry and come back in the channel tunnel. Thus we could have the best of both ways, really. The ferry was considerably slower than the tunnel but the advantages of it were the family lounge (where our son N could exhaust some of his energy before we trapped him back again in the car seat), the cafeteria, the much lower price and of course the view.
Quite opposite to that, there was not much of a view at the tunnel, in fact no view at all – it was pitch dark. I have to say, however, it was great. I was truly impressed by how fast and seamless everything goes – you literally enter the facilities right at the highway and from the check-in point there is a 2 minute ride to the train. You drive your car into the train and you could either get out and walk on the side walks (but not between the vehicles!) or stay in your car and relax. We reached France in no time – the crossing lasted about 20-25 minutes. I highly recommend the channel tunnel.
We had rented an apartment in Oxford using Airbnb. We wanted to feel like we are in a home away from home and make sure that we have all the facilities we need for our little one. Plus, I figured it would be best to have a nice and cosy safe harbour in those days (or parts of days) when the weather would not cooperate. We loved the apartment, although the neighbourhood was not what I had expected – I wanted your typical historic and beautiful Oxford ambiance and our place turned out to be in a slightly run-down outskirt of town, but no matter. At least the place was very well connected with the centre – 5 busses ran almost every 4 minutes from right in front of the apartment to downtown Oxford. The bus turned out to be the best way to get from where we were, to the centre. We tried going by car but in the morning the traffic was just too bad. Once in the centre, we could walk everywhere – it is a relatively small town.
Our idea was to enjoy Oxford at a relaxed pace and do things that are toddler friendly so that no one gets frustrated and everybody is happy. It worked surprisingly well (with only a few hiccups).
Things we did while in Oxford:
- We took a walking guided tour which gave us the basics and fed us more ideas of what to see and do. I must admit the walking tour with a toddler and his stroller was not as seamless as we had hoped. Two-year-olds are not renowned for their patience and N lost his quite early on during the tour so his dad and I had to take turns to watch him and make sure he doesn’t disrupt the tour for the rest of the group. We did a lot of walking around and soaking up the atmosphere on our own.
- We spend some time in the public library where they have a kids’ room with some toys and bean sofas for jumping. I found the library was a great refuge in the late afternoons when N would wake up from his nap and it would already be too dark and too cold to walk outside.
- We visited the Ashmolean museum. This was a nice activity for both us and the kid although we hadn’t realized that they actually offered a kids’ workshop and we unfortunately missed it.
- We visited a petting farm near Oxford (Farmer Gow’s) which we all enjoyed. The place was very kid friendly. They had many farm-related activities for kids such as toy-tractor riding, bale jumping, etc. There was an animal feeding activity, too – the little ones got to feed (and pet) piggies, baby goats and lambs. They also gathered eggs and made friends with the geese and the turkeys.
Contrary to popular opinion, November turned out to be a great time to visit Oxford. There were hardly any tourists and the place was buzzing with its own, authentic vibe. The students were there and up to their eyeballs in their studies and their dramas (we saw at least four young people crying in public, often while walking the streets alone, and I kept wondering what had happened to trigger such emotion – was it a difficult assignment, a snappy remark from a professor or heartbreak?).
The Oxfords students are a rare breed, in my view. You can sense how smart they are by the way their eyes sparkle and by the way they talk to each other and you can equally sense their ambition. They exude this feeling of confidence and determination that they are ready to take the world by a storm. It was so energising to be around them – young, smart, enthusiastic, driven, fashionable, in a hurry.
The colleges were fascinating! Most of them we only saw from outside but this was enough to take our breath away. It was magical to walk around these buildings. Oxford University consists of 38 colleges. Every college resembles a bit a university campus – a closed environment where the beautiful very old stone buildings are used both as residences for the students and as teaching venues. I thought to myself that it must be an interesting feeling to live in the same building where you have your lectures and eventually may have you exams! The dining halls were so impressive – I’ll only say that Harry potter scenes were shot in the dining halls of Oxford and say no more. The students gather to eat dinner there (although in modern day many of them prefer to make their own plans, we learned). They are supposed to be formally dressed, which means, in this context, wearing a student’s gown!
Where we ate while in Oxford
Last but not least – a word on food. We love checking out good local places to eat everywhere we go. This is one thing I do research (thank you, Oxford Mummy for the great recommendations for kid friendly good restaurants).
We particularly loved three places:
1) Bill’s – nice ambiance, industrial modern design, spacious, pleasant staff and fabulous food – tasty, fresh, beautifully arranged.
2) The Giraffe – really, really great for kids! The moment we walked in, they ran towards us with a high chair and colouring equipment for our son; when we ordered warm milk for N, they came back with lukewarm milk (unlike all other places where they brought us scorching hot milk and our two year old had to work on his patience) in a plastic container with a lid and a straw. And let’s not forget about the plastic figure of a giraffe the milk came with! This may sound like nothing out of the ordinary to North Americans but in Europe it is quite a rare touch! And it is so pleasant when it happens. The food in the Giraffe was very tasty, well cooked and beautifully arranged. Their blueberry banana pancakes were to die for!
3) Turl Street Kitchen – while this place is not particularly baby friendly, it is totally the place I want to eat my dinner in. It is situated in the heart of Oxford, right across the street from Exeter and Lincoln colleges, in a beautiful historic building (painted in a light blue colour!). The ambiance was very nice – rustic design, hard wood tables with colourful wooden chairs, walls tastefully decorated. I truly felt like being in somebody’s dining room. It was the food that was the real star of Turl Kitchen, though. They do not have a set menu but buy fresh, locally sourced produce on the market every day and cook whatever they have ingredients for. And man, do they know how to cook it! I can safely say that everything we tasted was heaven and my family is not an easy crowd to cook for. Both me and my husband worship food and have particularly high standards and requirements on how we want to eat it. On top of that we are raising a tiny foodie who knows good food when he smells it.